Bible Study: 14 Pentecost, Proper 16 (C)

August 25, 2013

Joe Woodfin, Sewanee

“But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’” (Luke 13:15-16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Jeremiah 1:4-10

One of my seminary professors is fond of discussing Jeremiah 1:8 as a comforting yet terrifying thought. “‘Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,’ says the Lord.” On one hand, it is a promise of deliverance; on the other hand, it is a promise that Jeremiah is being sent into a situation from which he will need to be delivered! Read in this light, this passage takes on a slightly different meaning than that which is often attached in the modern American milieu.

There is a tendency to read God’s promises of deliverance as a bland assurance that life will be comfortable: bills paid, late model car, and so forth. That is not Jeremiah’s context. At the same time, this particular passage has often been quoted in the last half century in the debate over abortion. Whatever one’s feelings about that issue, neither is that Jeremiah’s context. God’s statement about knowing the prophet in the womb is an assurance that God knows what God is doing – an assurance that might be necessary given the unpleasant circumstances that would confront Jeremiah.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with finding in these verses the assertion that God knows and loves every person intimately; that is a truth worthy of acceptance. But there is more going on here, and it leads one to ask: Are we willing to answer God’s call even if it means discomfort, risk, or peril?

Can we trust that God knows us and loves us and wants what is best for us?

Psalm 71:1-6

This portion of the psalter displays competing pictures of God. God is a rock, a fortress, a stronghold – as in the hymn “A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing.” But God is also portrayed as tenderly bringing a new child into the world, taking the place of a midwife and a nurse: “Upon you have I leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” Insisting on either of these images without recognizing the richness of the other is to miss part of the divine picture. God is prepared to shelter someone who is looking for protection, but God is also ready to cradle someone looking for loving embrace.

Do you experience God as strong and protective, or gentle and compassionate? Or both?

Can you think of circumstances that have changed your experience of God?

Hebrews 12:18-29

In contrast to the psalm, there is no ambiguity in God’s persona in this passage. “Our God is a consuming fire.” It is rather a rather dire image, one that has historically been employed as it was probably originally intended: to terrify persons into accepting and holding fast to the faith.

In the context of the letter to the Hebrews, the argument runs something like this: (1) The “old” covenant is only a shadow of the new one; (2) God punished Israel for not being obedient to that covenant; so (3) now that the “new and improved” covenant is here, you’ll be in much worse shape if you reject it.

It is a compelling argument, enhanced by plenty of rhetorical flourish and vibrant imagery. It is also an extremely troubling argument, because it is founded on a deep Christian supersessionism that intended to replace Judaism entirely. The interpretation of this letter, along with other parts of Christian scripture, has led to a troubling history of anti-Jewish oppression and violence. If we are to acknowledge and renounce that history, we must take a second look at the rhetoric and the motivation of passages such as this one.

Are there ways that we can describe the Christian faith without demeaning others? At the same time, can Christianity be intelligible without connection to its Jewish roots? Answering those questions could keep the church busy for quite some time.

Luke 13:10-17

The woman in today’s gospel reading doesn’t ask to be healed. In other contexts, Jesus makes people ask for what they want before he gives it; in this case, he calls her over and heals her without even asking for her permission!

He should have known this was going to be an issue. Such a Sabbath healing has happened before in this gospel, in Luke 6:6-11, right after Jesus’ famous pronouncement that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” That healing generated a firestorm of controversy, and so did this one.

The leader of the synagogue is indignant, and we can imagine his speech: “This is a church! This is a holy day! Take care of your problems some other time!”

Knowing that Jesus was aware of the ramifications, we are led to a couple of conclusions: Either he was spoiling for a fight, or he was so moved with compassion for the woman that he couldn’t help himself. I prefer the latter, but given the confrontational personality of the Synoptic Jesus, I suspect the former is in play as well.

One view of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is of a Jewish teacher who is consistently given to interpret Torah in a way that is most beneficial for life and health. Torah is a force for good, and therefore, should not be a constraint against healing or life-giving activity – even on the Sabbath. Or put another way, “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

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